Transcript: I have the daunting task of summarising 2000 years in two sentences, so I’ll avoid it, and hope that you saw the last tape. Which was basically… the movement so far is to present something like a traditional history of ideas but – if you’ve noticed – with little rejoinders along the way that suggest that that history of ideas is not innocent. Not as though it were being presented in the way that the National Association of Scholars would have you believe. Books being selected as though by very intelligent readers because they are the best books. That isn’t always wrong, but the story of the survival of books and the formations of canons clearly has other factors.
It couldn’t be accidental that the books we have discussed so far, and the movements are white, male, viewed basically through the European axis, and continue to be so. That those books got canonised cannot be a total accident. In other words, it just couldn’t be prima facie, totally accidental that that occurred. So that would give you reason to suspect that there are other factors. See, it’s not the argument that there are no factors of merit in the formation of a canon, or a group of books called philosophy books or history books, but that the only factor can’t be merit. There must be other factors; material factors. Factors of groups that are oppressed and so on, and those I’ll get to later. So I am not going to rehash the rather quick run-through of that 2000 year period. Instead I am going to jump right into – I have already mentioned this man’s name before [Marx]; I’ll mention it again – I’ll jump right into modernity.
Now, modernity is a word that is thrown around a lot and in many contexts now in discussions of art, in discussions of politics, and all over the place, sociology. In fact Sociology was born from a distinction – modern sociology – from a distinction between modern and traditional societies. Now, that is not a left wing distinction that only Marx had. You know, Marx wasn’t the only one that noticed that, as it were, capitalism was different than feudalism. So did Tonnies, so did Max Weber, and so did everyone else. So did Charlie Chaplin. In Modern Times, Charlie Chaplin knows that something has happened, right. New kind of movements, the machines… I mean this not a particularly…
So what we are going to do now is to move into a new kind of world; in which the problems of every day life from which philosophical problems arise and which they try to address in a certain way [ideology]. Now that way is not simply as a compensation, although I have presented that as one aspect of it. They also may be a way to evade the problems. That’s the sense in which Marx uses the word ideology: you know, to evade, cover up or legitimate some illegitimate feature of the problems in every day life, and sometimes theories may even help respond to them. You may think here of Dewey on progressive education.
In any case, the ethical views we are going to discuss now belong to modernity; to that modern project that is historically and symbolically understood to begin somewhere around the French Revolution. Understood by Marx as the victory of a class; a class of basically Merchants over a class of Aristocrats. With the help of a massive number of workers who see more to gain under the Merchants than under the Aristocrats. So that’s a brief story, but I still think a very plausible one, you know.
At least in the absence of better stories, we stick with the best ones we have. So if you combine Max Weber’s understanding of modernity, which has to do with bureaucracy, the State and the increasing rationalisation of modern life; the areas subject to rational, procedural rules – that’s one half of the story – and then the increasing commodification, or the extent to which the economy plays a role in shaping everyday life. Those two halves of the story together, as it were for me, form the break into modernity, from earlier societies.
These ethical theories we will discuss now are very different than the other ones. I could present other ethical views, like the Greek view of Excellence, the Roman view of Hedonistic pleasure, the Christian view of imitating the life of Christ; to be a Christian, a Knight of Faith, and so on. Those were character based views about how to live in a society. But with the advent of modernity, a new problem arises. And that’s that human subjects for the first time get to be fragmented, as it were, into individual atoms.
Now it’s very important to understand that this concept of the individual is a historical one. That what we understand as our isolated little psyche – that little private spot in our head – and the little wall of our body as being us is not a datum factum, but something that is theoretically constructed and developed historically from other and differing views. In fact, on the planet today there are differing views about it.
Now this new individual, according to Max Weber, would have a task that his feudal predecessor couldn’t have had. At least under feudalism, no matter how lowly the serf, his life meant something in this grander drama; the battle between God and the devil. One that we can still enjoy vicariously, by watching The Exorcist, right? You go: “Oh, I remember that… Exorcist… yeah, power of Christ…” and you know, go “Yeah, its great”, you know. You kind of vicariously enjoy the past. It’s one of the features of this society; the society we live in.
In any case, the important point here is that the new theories will not respond, as it were, to character. Because what they will respond to are individual – individuated – actions; single actions. One way this distinction is made in philosophy is that previous ethical theories were virtue ethics, and that meant about the formation of good folks in good societies. Under bourgeois views of ethics, like Kant’s, Mill’s and others, it won’t be. Ethics won’t be about the formation of good folks in good societies. It will be a rather narrow enquiry into whether action A B or C is the correct one to perform. In other words, like everything else, ethics will become more instrumental and more quantitative.
So if these views sound to you clearer than the, sort of, the ways of life that I have presented rather broadly, they are clearer and more quantitative, but for very deep historical reasons. Because they are trying to make up for a deficit that’s based on individuals now being fragmented and separated in a society where social bonds are not as fundamental as procedural, legal relations in the State, or as important as economic relations which become – for the first time – a structuring principle of society. And that’s not meant to be a negative remark, I mean if you think so, wait until I talk about Marx.
I mean, I think Marx had a lot more good things to say about capitalism than Bill Buckley. And in the Manifesto, if you read it, it’s the greatest system ever. Unfortunately, it’s the worst too. Well, we live in it, so we experience some of both. I mean, that’s not that bad an account. Anyway, that’s all the background I want to do, because now we are moving from Virtue ethics to a kind of ethics that’s supposed to answer for us individual subjects, who no longer have the background of meanings to draw on, for right action.
In other words, in the feudal period, a right action is one recommended by mum and dad, as well brought up by the Church, and so on. So, the key word for traditional society would be “authority”, you know.
And it would be important to understand that – while the French Revolution was a revolution – is that the authority that can be recognised in a post revolutionary France: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, bloody revolution… the only authority to be recognised after this historical break, in principle, will be the authority of the autonomous individual. Kant says in a famous essay called “What is Enlightenment?”, he goes: “The motto of the enlightenment is: ‘Dare to use your own reason'”. All decisions henceforth, if you make them because somebody else told you – mum, dad, the king, or the prince, or even the government, or even God himself – for Kant are heteronomous. All decisions henceforth must be autonomous. You’ve got to say it’s what you want to do. A key and important advance – I am not presenting this negatively – an important advance and a key moment in modernity. Autonomy becomes central to ethical decisions, I’ll get onto that in just a moment. But it’s a broader point, because it’s a point about the kind of human subjects that are being constructed by that new order. You know, we have got another one coming. That new order is now quite old.
Okay, personally I hope I don’t bore you with this. I find Kant’s ethical theory exciting, and I am going to try to make it exciting, because to this day it is probably the highest achievement of this society, and you can call it bourgeois, you can call it whatever you want to – using Max Weber’s terms – that, for now, is not the argument. It’s a new kind of society, is enough for now. And Kant’s argument is about how individuals in this society should judge their actions in terms of right and wrong. Kantian ethics begins with the presupposition. And now that’s not surprising in philosophy, because after all, as Hegel said: “One must begin”, and any beginning must presuppose something. So, he presupposes something. And what Kant presupposes in his ethics is that there is a moral law. He says that well, you know, some things are moral. There’s a moral law. There are some things that are right and wrong. That isn’t questioned by Kant. Later philosophers, I will argue, do question it.
Kant just goes: “Yes, some things are moral”. Now, that belief for Kant as a human being was based on being raised by a couple of really good piteous parents. And it was just unthinkable to him that in their whole lives they had never once obeyed a moral law. And in the empirical world, if a moral law had been obeyed even once, then Kant’s style of arguing would allow him to argue based on that presupposition: “How is it possible that there be a moral law?”. That is a standard form of Kantian questioning. It’s to look at a practice and then to ask about that practice: “What are the conditions for the possibility of it?”. That is the first meaning of “critique”, a dangerous new form of thought that enters the world with the bourgeois era – critique; criticism – in a new and radical way.
In any case, there is a moral law for Kant; how is it possible? Now, Kant is going to run through a circular argument, which will hit… And I admit, by the way, that it’s circular. The question is: “Is it a good circle?”. In other words, an interesting, enlightening one about our moral lives, or a boring one. And I am going to try to make it interesting because I in part agree with it. Kant begins with a series of identifications, the attempt being to not only answer: “How is the moral law possible?”, but to try to do something that looks impossible as the argument goes along. And that is to give the pure, abstract form of the moral law. A procedural one that will allow us to ask of any specific moral law: “Is it really moral?”. And we’ll see when we get to that moment. I’ll have to have a drum roll, because it’s one of the most famous philosophical arguments. But I have got to get there, so let me get there.
Kant begins his argument by talking about the Will. Kant says that there is only one thing in this world or out of it that is good without qualification, and that’s a good Will. The point Kant wants to make here is that all these other things humans valued: happiness, courage, apatheia, excellence; they are good, but only with qualification. For example, if it makes you happy to murder innocent babies, well the happy part is good, but you have got to qualify it, right. You don’t want to say “Well, it’s just good, period”. You’ve got to add a qualification. And if you say: “Well, that person is an excellent chainsaw murderer”, that’s good that he’s excellent, but you’ve got to qualify it.
So Kant points out that no, a good will is good, and you don’t need to qualify it. It’s just good. That’s the first step in what I am going to admit is a circular argument. Why? Because now Kant has to characterise what a good Will is. It’s not very informative to say, you know, “What is the good?” and he goes “A good will”. You know, and “What’s a good Will?”, and he tells you what that is. A good Will is one – and this is going to sound really anal, sorry; it’s Kant, I mean, you know – a good will acts for the sake of duty alone. In other words, a good will does the right thing for this reason: that it is the right thing, and no other. Not for the sake of gain, or happiness, or inclination, but because it is your due. It’s the right thing to do. So there you answer Spike Lee’s question “Do the right thing” by: you just do it because it’s the right thing, and for no other reason. This makes his view very different than some others we will discuss.
In fact, Kant goes so far at one time as to suggest… and by the way, the book I am referring to here is “The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals”, which is a very short little, very readable book. It’s not exactly a coffee table edition, but it’s a very important text. Kant at one time goes so far as to suggest that if you get a kick out of doing good – if you are sort of inclined to it – it doesn’t count. You know what I mean? You know, and we have a kind of an intuition that agrees with that. You know, in the word “do-gooder”. If you just do good because you’re a do-gooder, it doesn’t really count. Goodness, for Kant, comes out of a struggle where we… I mean, it’s sort of a more Christian notion of goodness. “We really want to sin…”, because everybody who is honest with themselves is nostalgic for Christianity because we lost the most fun part of it: sin, magnificent sin. You know, Mephistopheles: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”. You know, sin, boy, if we could just get that back we’d be somewhere. Sin. Well, anyway…
To act because you want to – because you have a desire to do good and then you do it – for Kant is nice. But it is morally… indifferent. It’s like flossing your teeth. It’s a good thing to do. But no badges, no medals, very little praise and honour for it. In a moral sense. No, morality comes out of that struggle like: “I want to sin…”, and then no, you do the right thing. “I really want to kill the S.B.”… You don’t, you do the right thing. So Kant sees morality in that kind of struggle between our duty, which our reason… because reason is the big word of the enlightenment, you know that, right? Reason as opposed to superstition…
…that’s what the Enlightenment, Modernity and the Capitalists were selling against the King and the Church: reason. And I mean, I don’t think that’s a bad idea.
So Kant sees this struggle between reason and our passions, when we went out and do what is, you know, “right” procedurally, according to our reason then that’s doing the right thing for its own sake, and that’s where we give moral praise. However, you may have noticed that so far we have another circular account. Even if it turns out that the good Will acts for the sake of duty alone, we still don’t know what the good Will is, because now any intelligent inquirer into how they ought to act would go: “Well, what’s my duty?”. I mean, just doing my duty no matter what, which of course – given that Kant is a German philosopher – conjures up problems. We know that there are problems with just doing your duty no matter what. And by the way, so did Kant. His emphasis on duty understands that you don’t do your duty no matter what, you have to characterise what form it should take, so he does.
Duty – and now look at the circle here – duty is when one acts out of reverence for the moral law. No chuckles out there, but there should be, because now we are right back where we started, see. Started out with moral law and now we are back to it. Well, this is where the argument would stop, and it would be a terrible argument, and would make Kant a very uninteresting moral philosopher except that now Kant begins the impossible task of giving us a single, formalisable moral law. Very important to understand that it’s – for him – it must be formalisable. A real formula, usable to judge actions by. Remember, this is the Bourgeoisie era – this era of the bourgeois – they won’t just take these fudgey “excellent” kind of criteria; they really want to know if you are doing good. You know, your boss says “Did you have a good day?”; sometimes he wants a real definite answer.
Well, here’s where the drum roll should come in, because Kant’s Categorical Imperative is a magnificent achievement of the philosophical imagination. In the categorical imperative Kant tries to give a single moral rule. General enough to cover all the Ten Commandments, and the golden rule, and all other decent rules, and to exclude all of them that won’t fit those kind of patterns. And he succeeds to an extent what I would have thought impossible. And I will quickly tell you what the Categorical Imperative is. Now, he gives six or seven versions of it. To shorten the day, I have selected one. The categorical imperative runs like this. Now all you have to do is write this down and get everyone else to do it, and you’ll be good. Congratulations. I don’t think it’s that easy, but anyway.
The Categorical Imperative is “Always act so that you can will the rule of your action to be a universal law” Always act so that you can will – so that you can will – the rule of your action to be a universal law. It is an imperative because it is a command. Categorical Imperative. It is an imperative, because it’s a command. You remember Moses didn’t come down – you know, Chuck Heston, right – he didn’t come down with the Ten Suggestions. So, like Kant goes: “Moral rules are commands, not suggestions!”, so that’s the imperative part. Categorical, because not hypothetical. You see, we have got to cover a moral theory later that says “You should do action X, if something else”, which is a hypothetical. For Kant, it isn’t like that. It’s you should do action X, period. Categorical sentence. Commands, as I say. Well, it’s the strong sense of morality that lots of, sort of, you know, the older Americans [would identify with]… the strong sense of morality.
Okay, what does it mean to always act so that you can will the rule of your action to be a universal law? Well, it means that for every action you perform, you could conceivably write a rule. You know, you’re tired, and you agreed to go out with someone, but you’re tired, and now you don’t want to do it. So you lie to her. Now, you could write a rule about that, and it says: “It’s okay to lie to people when you are tired, and don’t feel like keeping a promise”. Well, could you? Under the rule I just read you, could you write such a moral rule consistently? No. Here’s why not. Because, you would have to one, be willing to rule that as a universal law. Which means that all humans begin to behave that way. Which would mean there would be no more promises, binding obligations of any kind would disappear. And then whatever you might think about that situation; some might like it, even me, it might be Anarchy, who knows. But for sure, the institutions upon which the very rule is based would disappear. For Kant, that’s a sign you have broken it. The second sign you have broken the Categorical Imperative is that it must be reversible. By that – and this is as old as the Golden Rule, in fact, all it is a formal explanation of the Golden Rule – you have to be willing to say: “Would I want anyone to do that to me?” and answer “Yes”.
So, here are the criteria it has to meet: It has to be one, universalisable without restriction, and it has to be reversible. Now, other than that there is no content to the Categorical Imperative. That is its content: universal, and reversibility. Now, there are two other important points to make about it quickly. No proper names ever go in moral rules. Now, I need to remind George Bush of this. No proper names ever go in moral praise and blame, ever. Because these imperatives hold for all or none. So, no group names go in there, there are no moral rules that go: “Thou shalt tell the truth, except for African-Americans who we know are liars”, or, “Thou shalt be honest, except for Arabians”, or something. No! Moral rules are not like that. Gotta be good for everyone, or they are no good for anyone. They are not even moral if they are not universalisable. And they are also not moral if you can pick out unique exceptions to which they for some unusual reason don’t apply. They have got to apply universally. This is Kant’s theory anyway.
Now, what’s more interesting than this so far are the principles that Kant draws from the Categorical Imperative. And some of which have remained extremely important to us today – and one is still important to me now – I think at least one of them. He draws from this Categorical Imperative four principles. The first one is one that if it were followed, as a moral rule, would make the capitalist economy impossible, at least in its current form. It would also make the state socialist economies that just fell impossible, which they already are under their present form. Anyway, it’s the “Ends Principle”. The Ends Principle – Kant says – follows from the Categorical Imperative and the Ends Principle is as follows: “Always treat others, and yourself as though you were an end, and never a mere means”.
You need to think about that one for a while. Always treat other people as an end, and never as a mere means. Now, my West Texas way of saying that is “Don’t use folks”. Don’t use them. That means, don’t hire them at Burger King so you can make extra money as an Assistant Manager, so you can… because you are using them. That’s what I meant about it would make official economy impossible, to follow that moral rule. You can’t use folks. Don’t use them. Because the Ends Principle tells you that you treat your own life as an end. In other words, you don’t treat yourself as a means generally speaking, you treat your activities as ends. I mean, “This is me, I am doing it”, it’s an end. But when you treat someone instrumentally, it’s not what happens.
Frequently… and this comes up at Duke University and it probably comes up in dating out in the more adult world of multiples, singles, polymorphousness, and all, you know, all the new talk shows, Oprah and whatever. Dating is frequently not a relation that obeys the Principle of Ends. Frequently the situation is one in which somebody is supposed to use someone else as a means to an end. Well, it’s wrong, according to Kant because you should never treat any person – including yourself, by the way – as a mere means, but only as an end. That’s the Ends Principle. Connected to that, and connected to the imperative is one that I think is worth fighting over.
I said I deeply believe in some principles. This is one I deeply believe in: The Principle of Freedom. Which is we must always act under the practical postulate that our will is free. Now, here is what Kant is saying, and I think it’s worth remembering. That we all have these arguments that we can’t do anything about something, and that so much stuff is going on, how can I help? For Kant, none of that works. It’s all excuses. Later, Sartre will call it “Bad Faith”. The practical postulate under which you should morally act is that you are free. Now, why does Kant call it a practical postulate? It’s simple. Because you can’t show that you are free, you may not even be free, in other words you could either be in prison, or as Sartre says, or you could be determined by psychological, social factors, whatever. But you should act under the practical postulate that your moral decision makes a difference.
Now – if you have noticed – so far all Kant is doing is giving us an account of what a lot of folks think moral action is anyway. Sort of, maybe this one is controversial, but we’ll see. In any case, that practical postulate is one that you have all adopted today, whether you knew it or not. Because hardly anyone gets up in the morning and dresses themselves as a cleverly constructed automaton, and says: “I wish I could do something today, but since there was the Big Bang and I know the laws of physics and biology and behavioural science, that means I am going to go through the day like an automaton. No. Practically speaking, you got up and went: “Hell, I am going to go to the talks”, right? As though you were free to do it. And, you’re here! Great.
But, it’s funny when we turn to politics we forget this. We go “Well, you know, there is just nothing I can do…”. Well, Sartre called that Bad Faith because in other respects you act under a practical postulate. Act as though you are free. You might get lucky. You might be free, who knows! Act that way. It’s worth trying! I mean, it’s better than being a slave to try that [acting free]. Well, anyway this is not some lefty idea. This is the greatest bourgeois ethicist. And this is your own revolution, folks, you know.
Now, connected to the principle of freedom is one I am equally attached to: the principle of autonomy. Always act so that you can regard your own will as making universal law. Now this is more responsibility than most people want. This means that when you decide, you ask your question; you ask this question. You decide autonomously; that means not under the will of another. In here; autonomously in your heart, and in your mind. And autonomy is a beautiful word. You act autonomously.
Now, what does it mean. What does it mean to regard your own will here as making universal law? It means this. That you would be willing for everyone else to act just as you did. So that if you make a perfect ass of yourself, and you do it autonomously, you are at least willing that everybody else do it – and you may be! See, that’s not inconsistent with autonomy. On the other hand, autonomy is a frightening principle. Because even Kant says if God himself were to come down and to give you a moral directive, if you followed it, that would be non-moral. It wouldn’t be wrong, but it wouldn’t morally count. If God said: “Go over there”, and you did it, it would be okay, but it wouldn’t be moral. Moral stuff comes from you; the decisions you make. Not from the decisions others make for you. So if you are a patriot because everybody else is, even if you decided to agree with them, it ain’t worth diddly. Not morally. It has to come from you. For me, that is a powerful principle, it’s the Principle of Autonomy.
Now Kant, sort of, caps this off now by returning in a strange way to our earlier questions about what human beings are like. And then one last point and then I am through with Kant. Kant says that the human capacity to be a moral agent, just that capacity that we have to ever act morally… and remember this is not some loony argument; Kant is procedurally describing what moral behaviour would look like, while just holding to one side the question of whether very many people ever actually act this way. He’s just saying if there is moral action, it has got to look like this. It can’t be some smidgey thing about “Well, I am nice…” It can’t be that. That’s his argument anyway.
The human capacity to be a moral agent in this strong sense gives each human what Kant calls – and what I think is worthy of calling – “dignity”. And dignity for Kant means an unconditional worth. Human dignity means that each one of these newly constructed bourgeois individuals has unconditional worth. Which, as an insight – I think – many of us share. You hear of a settlement of a wrongful death suit. And all of us can feel the pain of the judge trying to put a dollar amount on it. Why? Because we know from this Kantian insight – and our own autonomous insight – that a human life doesn’t have that kind of value. It’s not a quantitative value. Because that human being could be a moral agent; the value of that life is unconditional. Which means that it’s not a monetary one. It has an unconditional value.
Now, the sort of, last part of Kant and then we are through with him for a while. The last part is where he ties all this up… All this so far is about how individuals act – and what they are – if there’s morals; if there is a moral law. But, if each one of us acted this way in regard to each other one of us, we would be in a state that Kant calls “The Kingdom of Ends”. A kingdom of ends would be a place where all of us in our mutual relations with one another treated each other as ends and not as mere means. Where each one of us granted the other his (or her) autonomy, and we are similarly granted our autonomy. In which each one of us decided autonomously on our freedom and is granted the same right by each and every other one.
A kingdom like that for Kant would be one in which no-one – again to make it simple and “West Texas” – in which no-one uses anybody. Nobody gets used. And that’s how Kant wraps up what I consider a fascinating and one of the most important moral accounts of this period of philosophy. It’s that the last goal is to reach a situation where we could live in a kingdom of ends. By the way he says that it would be one of perpetual peace. That of course, as we know, we are still waiting on because there’s another new order coming. Okay, I am not going to have time to do as much as I wanted to do, because I did more with Kant than I intended to do.
Let me contrast Kant’s morality, which today goes under the name of “Deontology“, namely morality that, you know, is about these fundamental rules – rule governed morality – versus a reality that all of you will be familiar with, so will require a very short explanation. It’s Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill’s moral principle, and I am going to give you Mill’s version of it, and it’s called Utilitarianism. And Americans ought to know all about this, it’s in Star Trek movies, it’s all over the place. And so, I’ll give you the utilitarian principle, and I can do it quickly, because it is based on Hedonism. But it is not based on individual hedonism, but on social hedonism. Now, I’ll try to explain that. You’ll understand it once I read the principle, and you already know it, I think.
We should always act so as to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number. Now there is one rule on the one side… the categorical imperative says that we should always act so that the rule of our action could be willed by us to be universal, and on the other side, the principle that we should always act to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number. For Mill and Bentham, it’s clear that happiness is the greatest good. It’s clear. And they give a kind of empirical argument for it – even though that’s not elegant philosophically – they say: “We know happiness is good because that’s what people go after, so, it’s good”. It’s kind of simple minded, but that’s what led Nietzsche to say that Mill was a blockhead, I mean… but anyway. In fact, Nietzsche went further; he said “Human beings don’t want to be happiness, only the English want that”.
Okay, so, “the good” here is happiness, that’s why it’s sometimes referred to as “the greater happiness” principle. And calculation is no problem here. You may go: “Well, you couldn’t be utilitarian because you couldn’t calculate”. But in fact the Utilitarian response to that is flat footed and rather – you know – smart; and that’s that you do it all the time. Every time you buy a car, every time you risk driving anywhere, you calculate: “Easier to get to the airport by car, or easier to get Ma to drive me? Easier to go here to do that… better to go to Yale than to Harvard?…”, and so on. So, you may say that in objection to this theory that you can’t do it, but you do it all the time. You make utilitarian calculations.
In fact, these two moral theories – in terms of just pure moral theories – still dominate all standard philosophical discussion. Now, it’s clear to me that one of them is more interesting than the other. I think you know which one is more interesting to me. [crowd laughter]. But I have got to warn you that there are knock-down objections to both, and by knock-down objections, I mean knock-down objections. We know that these theories are wrong because there are knock-down objections to them. The best way to look at both of them however might be as models of moral action. If by models we don’t mean the shopping mart idea of something we do once in a while, but as a way to think about a moral life, if you are interested in it. Some people aren’t interested in it, but if you are, it’s a way to think about it. But the objections are important to see.
The classic objection to Kant’s categorical imperative is that it is empty of content, period, because it depends on what someone is willing to will. So, if you asked Charlie Manson: “Charlie…” – you know who Charlie Manson is? – “Charlie, are you willing to will your actions to be universal?” What gives us a good reason to think Charlie won’t go: “Why not, I am the meanest S.B. in the valley”. You see, at the bottom line, all Kant could say to him is “Well, you are just not a rational moral agent”, which isn’t much of an answer to Manson now is it? You see, the problem that is paid for making your moral theories universal at that level is you lose content. But now the utilitarian principle also has a deep problem that I have to mention; very unfortunate problems with it. One of them being that it seems to violate our sense of justice. I’ll use one example here. We have a device that will allow us to execute someone on television the way Attorney General Maddox in Texas wanted to do it; to scare people. But only Maddox and one scientist know that the device actually blows the prisoner, atomises him, and sends him away to the Blessed Isles.
Now, here is the other device, which is the normal Texas electric chair. Both of them have, by my example, the same effect on the public in terms of utility. They reduce crime, thus making for greater happiness for a greater number of people. But which one should the utilitarian prefer? The one that actually executes the prisoner or the one that blows him to the Blessed Isles, by Utilitarian principles? Yes or Nos are okay. The Blessed Isles. But that doesn’t seem fair now, does it? Why should he get to go to the Blessed Isles, just because of this blessed principle? You see: you want to say “Blessed Isles or no Blessed Isles, happiness or no unhappiness, that isn’t fair”. So, fairness is the thing that Kantian ethics seems to capture better. But Utilitarian ethics seems to capture content and real decision making frequently better than Kant’s ethics. So they both have strong points and weak points, and that’s important to remember.
There is another really bad thing about Utilitarian ethics taken too seriously. By that I mean, taken as more than a model of moral reasoning. Say your kid has got an IQ of 110 and is lazy. You love him though. The neighbour’s kid has got an IQ of 140, busy, has got a Gilbert chemistry set as big as the wall, and you have got only enough money to send one kid to medical school, and you are a convinced Utilitarian. Whose kid are you going to send? Neighbour’s kid. Some people wouldn’t think that was moral though. Why? Well, because both these moral theories – it’s important to remind you now – ignores so much of our lives. Things like friends, family, special relations, ethnic relations, gender relations, class relations. Why are all these things ignored? Well because they are bourgeois moral theories. That’s why, among other things – among other reasons – that’s why they are ignored.
Anyway that’s – to this day – the two primary moral theories; the Utilitarian principle – the utilitarian theory – and Kant’s. By the way, the Utilitarian theory has wide application besides philosophy. When you hear these economists on Nightline, be sure to remember that they are all working with utility based models. But the foundations underneath those models are quite shaky. I’ll give you one last moral example during the next talk, before we get onto it. I think that’s time to wrap up this one, isn’t it? I think…